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The Cocktail World Is Intoxicated By Irish Moonshine

Once illegal, Ireland's forgotten moonshine—poitín—it's now making its way into proper bars and cocktails despite its unpredictable alcohol content.
December 19, 2014, 7:00pm
Photo by Annie Bradney.

The drink hits me in the face like an emerald steam train: A liquid locomotive running on alcohol and happiness. I'm sampling poitín: Ireland's forgotten moonshine, a tipple so glorious it was once made illegal. Its history rivals that of whiskey. In the hearts of Irish people, it holds a place as endearing and notable as Guinness, or James Joyce.

On this occasion (the face hitting), I'm in London speakeasy Shebeen with an Irishman named Dave Mulligan. Along with his business partner, Cara Humphreys, he's a main player in the poitín world.

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Mulligan gives me Teeling's brand to begin with, a 61-percent variety that lingers on the tongue and rolls down my throat in heated promise. Later, I sip a poitín-based Old Fashioned of sorts, with lavender bitters and a touch of sugar syrup. It's light, refreshing. I want to curl up by an Irish fire, be read to by Oscar Wilde, and let the concoction take me to a Dublin armchair.

I soon discover that more of us are to ride this wave of white Irish fire. Mulligan—under his brand Bán—is soon to release an accessible, mass-market poitín (only a few bars serve it outside of Ireland). The aim is to refine something raw, make it workable, and bring a tradition back to life.

But as poitín evolves into something new, it'll retain, Mulligan says, its "spark and sentiment," which is what makes it such a poignant beverage in the first place. Because as much as poitín is about flavour, it's also about history. And it's important to properly understand the drink's origins. It's probably fair to say that if Ireland is the home of drinking, poitín, then, is its kitchen.

"My role is as much about bringing poitín to a wider audience as it is about educating people about it," explains Mulligan. "This is what gin is to English people, sake to the Japanese. You wouldn't go to a village in Ireland and not find poitín. It really is woven into the country's fibre."

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Poitín was first—and still is, in part—cooked up by ordinary folk in the houses and back garden sheds of Ireland. A countryside tipple, it warmed chests in bitter winds, supplied a yearning for reverie. Traditionally, the booze is perilously high in alcohol volume. Distilled in small batches, there was no bother about an ABV of, in some cases, 90 percent. Some of these super potent poitíns are still knocking around, by the way. They're worth a go.

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Many a year passed in which carousing was fueled by the spirit. It was made with anything worth growing—even acting as a currency or trading tool. Make poitín out of surplus potatoes (the most common base) and with bottles aplenty you might barter one or two for some carrots in exchange.

"Each maker has their own way, each batch tastes a little different," Mulligan tells me. But all "proper" versions hold that punch and purity. It's a flavour removed from gin or vodka, yet similarly sharp and clean. It's been called "potato whiskey" by some. Disputable.

What poitín definitely is, however, is the spirit of Ireland–in more ways than one. In 1661, under English rule, a law was passed that meant distillers had to pay a tax. Ireland's captors were pilfering the very soul that kept it alive. Later still, in 1760, a further bill was passed that made the drink illegal to produce without a licence—and funnily enough, hundreds of distilleries closed.

There's some thought, at times correct, of poitín being some kind of "paint stripper," or a bootlegged, alcoholic painkiller.

Fortunately for the more discerning drinker, the laws eased in 1997. Mulligan is now making full use of a more open trade.

As he recalls his first experience tasting poitín—he was ten and drinking from an unmarked moonshine bottle post-sporting activity—we continue sampling mixes in his north London bar. He believes the spirit can be enjoyed as a standalone beverage, or utilised in blends in the same way as white rum, for example. There's some thought, at times correct, of poitín being some kind of "paint stripper", or a bootlegged, alcoholic painkiller. Indeed, in the past its purpose has extended past consumption. Today, however, Mulligan feels is certainly time to dispel those thoughts.

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"It's fucking brilliant in cocktails, or quaffable on its own. This is something so important to me," he says. "And it's incredibly important to Ireland. Its roots are as proper, authentic moonshine. Done properly it can be beautiful, and it's something made and enjoyed by so many in Ireland. When the tax came in it was the ultimate scorn. It's got such a weighty history to add to everything else. That's what real booze is about, I suppose. Like English gin," he adds.

"Though its rawest form wouldn't work on the mass market; it'd spoil cocktails," he concedes. "That's why we've adapted it."

We have poitín picklebacks. They bring tears to the eyes of one drinker, splutters of astonishment to another. I'm halfway to sheer elation, galloping atop a green hill of renewed understanding for life.

Mulligan says his brand's 2015 batch will be out in February, at around the 50 percent mark. It's a more precise, measured bottle as compared to his first, which is served in a handful of places outside Ireland.

He'll sell it in specialist retailers, online, in bars—maybe, eventually, in good grocers. London will be integral to his operation, though so too will New York, where, naturally, poitín is taking off in unison. The Dead Rabbit bar guys are central to the cause.

"There's so much you can do with this drink," Mulligan chimes in. "It's just so versatile. I love it, truly. It's a real part of Ireland that up until now has been in real danger. New generations aren't so inclined to make it illegally and so on—so the tradition's in danger of getting lost. We need to rekindle that, but to do so we've got to be a bit delicate, a touch more gentle. It still holds its form, we still nurture its flavours—we're just easing it for its rejuvenation."

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Mulligan is all about the flavour, the quality of the ingredients, and maintaining an attitude some might call "craft." The evening trickles on, and as I experience new and innovative ways to get drunk on Irish liquor, I too fall quickly and dramatically in love with poitín.

Unfortunately, Shebeen was at this point set to close (the intention is to reopen at a new site). But my new love will not be extinguished: another London bar, The Sun Tavern, is a new, second bastion of Ireland's moonshine.

I meet Jake Rogers, head bartender at the venture. Stacks of poitín brands adorn the shelves, from the delightful and infamous "Knocker's Hills" to "under the bar" varieties that are perhaps better left there.

"We've just opened and I'm working out the best ways to use it; it's such an exciting spirit to work with," Rogers tells me.

We have poitín picklebacks. He pours them himself, for me, and for a couple of other revellers who're joining in the fun a shot of something strong (this brand is actually labelled pocheen, you might also see poteen, as it doesn't fucking matter), and we take follow-up shots of salty juice from a jar of smelly onions. Together, they bring tears to the eyes of one drinker, splutters of astonishment to another. I'm halfway to sheer elation, galloping atop a green hill of renewed understanding for life.

Rogers seems to feel the same. And he too appreciates the history of poitín and the foundations the drink was built upon. "I love its story. We're all pushing it here; it's what we're about. Obviously we serve tons of other drinks, too, but we think poitín can go a long way. It's interesting and a bit different, and it works in cocktails."

The best thing it works in, in my opinion, is a white Negroni. Rogers conjures up a drink combining poitín in place of the gin, alongside Cocchi white vermouth and Suze—what I see as France's Campari.

Photo courtesy of Dave Mulligan

That's the greatness of poitín: A drink with real history, but a capacity to find new footing in 2015. Undefiled, it has the potential to churn up the industry. With bars and bartenders embracing it, the perpetually popular cocktail bars of London and New York will soon see its customers tempted by something with an intriguing flavour and depth.

Mulligan, without a hint of irony or stereotype, sums up the whole situation rather fittingly. "Sláinte!" he exclaims. Yes, if ever there's a time allowing for the rest of the world to shout the Irish toast, it's for poitín.